Between August 1894 and April 1895, China and Japan were engaged in a war over the future of the Korean peninsula in a conflict that became known as the First Sino-Japanese War. In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the Chinese military found itself heavily weakened and suffered many defeats at the hands of the Japanese, especially at the beginning of the war. In addition, the conflict showed that Japan had advanced more readily than the rest of Asia during the 19th century. Many historians cite the results of the losses having a profound influence on the future of China, directly influencing what eventually became the collapse of the dynasty system and rise of Communist forces throughout the country.
For centuries, Japan had practiced the policy of seclusion, keeping itself out of conflicts in the region and limiting trade with the rest of the world. This was known as Sakoku. In 1868, the Shogunate, the leaders of the Edo period, fell from power, resulting in the Meiji Restoration. This restored the power of the emperor. The nation opened up trade with the United States and sent many of its privileged elite abroad to learn at colleges and universities in the West. In a few short decades, Japan successfully positioned itself as a world power on par with much of Europe and the Americas.
Treaty of Ganghwa
In the late 1870s, it became apparent to the powers of the region that Korea was the prize to be gained if any of the nations were interested in expansion. Advised by Prussian military experts, the threat to Japan’s future security was prevalent if another country claimed or annexed the peninsula. Also addressed was the fact that Korea contained large deposits of coal and iron, materials that would help Japan in its industrialization efforts. In 1876, Japan crafted the Treaty of Ganghwa, an agreement that gave Korea independence from China and allowed trade with the Meiji government.
Treaty of Chemulpo
Natural disaster hit Korea shortly after this agreement. Food shortages from a severe drought resulted in many job losses. The country grew to resent its agreement with Japan. Likewise, the military of Korea began to contemplate a coup. In 1882, the army mutinied in Seoul, robbing the supplies from rice granaries and attacking Japanese officials. In response, the Chinese sent in 4,500 troops to take advantage of the upheaval. This nearly caused the full scale outbreak of war, but was quickly resolved with the Treaty of Chemulpo.
Convention of Tientsin
Despite the treaty, troops from both sides remained in country. Soon, pro-Japanese and pro-Chinese Koreans began to plot coup attempts. These reformers suffered many casualties. In response, both sides agreed to remove their soldiers and inform the other side if an expeditionary force was to return. This was decided at the Convention of Tientsin in 1885.
The situation came to a head almost a decade later. A major leader of the pro-Japanese Korean movement, Kim Ok-kyun, was assassinated while visiting Shanghai. His body was returned to Korea, where it was cut into quarters and displayed to the public. This created the Tonghak Rebellion, in which pro-Japanese Koreans began to attack pro-Chinese officials. In response, a force of Chinese soldiers entered the peninsula in violation of the convention. Japan responded, seizing control of Seoul and the government. All out war was now a reality.